This is the homily I gave last Tuesday morning during morning prayer at Trinity. It's based on the psalm for that day, Psalm 78.
Memory. We take it for granted, but all of our perceptions and judgments are shaped by it. It’s where, in one sense, our view of the world comes from. Our minds are host to so many memories we can’t count—weddings and funerals, friendships gained and lost, sought goals that did or didn’t pan out. Probably most of these memories revolve around our connections to other people—the things we did with them, or to them, or vice versa. For better or for worse. But as Christians, we have another category of memory—that of our testimony, our past experiences of being tangibly connected to God. Our psalm for today shows how testimony can overcome living from the cumulative memories of a broken world.
Some ancient songwriter composed Psalm 78 long ago in order to remind Israel of her testimony. “Give ear,” he says, “incline your ear,” pay attention to the things “that our ancestors have told us.” What did the ancestors tell? First and foremost, that Yahweh set it up that Israel would be the people to put their hope in him and keep his commandments. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob—these ancestors had a testimony from God setting them apart from their own ancestors, “a stubborn and rebellious generation.” Secondly, they told us through their actions that being the people of God is often, to quote Leonard Cohen, “a cold and broken ‘Hallelujah’.” Because the psalm goes on to recount the people of God’s history of vacillation between faithfulness and rebellion, between “Israel” and “Jacob”. The Psalmist is reminding the worshiper that to be Israel means to bend God’s way and not another, to be, in fact “Israel”—and to leave the wilfullness of “Jacob” behind.
The worshiper is reminded that Israel “forgot what [God] had done, and the miracles that he had shown them.” We’re also reminded of the God whom they encountered—not the bitter, fickle and angry God of some imaginations, nor the stoic dispenser of justice common to others. This God comes across as passionate, involved with and invested in the people he has marked for himself. His anger flares up at their disobedience, but steadfast love comes quickly on its heels, providing water and food. He’s a triune omnipotent groud-of-all-being person on a mission for the redemption of humanity, and in his millenia-long to and fro with Israel he demonstrates both his worthiness of character and humanity’s absolute need to be redeemed from above.
Psalm 78 bracingly reminds us of our shortcomings—Israel demonstrated the human capacity for open rebellion in the face of God’s kindness. The poet protests, “How often they rebelled against him in the wilderness and grieved him in the desert!” We’re a fickle species, human beings. Being human can sometimes be like being a machine where some of the most important parts are missing, or a cake missing its best ingredients like sugar or chocolate. God knows that about us—he knew it about Israel, no doubt. To the point of killing some. But despite that, he remains invested in us. Our sinful actions anger him, but he has compassion because he knows our frailty, he knows how we have been compromised by the stain of sin and the poisonous memories bequeathed to us by our lives. It is knowing and trusting in this God which empowers us to transcend the bondage of common fare human living.
That we can see all these things in this Psalm belies the songwriter’s own frustration and love for the sometimes faithful of Israel. He’s rubbing our noses in the past, begging the worshiper to remember the God who saves and act accordingly. And, ultimately, his hope is for a God-sent king to shepherd us in this charge. David serves as the template, the preliminary sketch of the solution this messy situation demands—an unruly people brought under a righteous but deeply invested God demands God’s direct leadership. We are like Isaiah’s sheep, each turning to our own way, but God has instituted Jesus, son of David, to sort us out.
This all suggests that what we’re in desperate need of is an active remembering of God and his works coupled with the example and leadership of Christ. This is not in any way to lean towards a so-called “works righteousness,” but rather to wrestle with the real and dirty problem of being a human being and also a possession and follower of Jesus Christ. Because we all have our demons, so to speak, whether anger, pride, lust, gluttony or fill in the blank. I don’t have to name your sin, or mine, to be confident that it exists and that on some days it exists boldly. It’s why the confession is part of daily worship.
Let us be reminded, then. We must face the fact that our sin angers God, but we can be comforted to know he has compassion nonetheless. Whether this means prayer, or repentance, or bible reading, or journaling, or all of the above and more, we always need to be reminded of the powerful God who doesn’t always seem close and essential to our day to day lives.